May 29, 2020

Women Leaders

Calling the shots: GrayRobinson law firm gives Mayanne Downs full control

Amy Martinez | 9/28/2017


Beneficial friendship

With help from another local attorney, Biff Marshall, Downs sold her brokerage business and enrolled in law school at UF. There, she became friends with a classmate named Buddy Dyer.

After law school, Downs returned to Orlando and worked for Griffin in private practice. In 1990, Griffin, who has since died, became an appellate judge for Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal. Downs joined a litigation firm in Orlando, King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, where she developed a reputation for taking on complex, high-stakes business cases and individual matters.

In 1997, Downs won what was then the largest payout of its kind in Florida — a $230-million cash and property settlement for Bettie Siegel in her divorce from timeshare magnate David Siegel. Downs’ other clients have included golfer Annika Sorenstam and NBA stars Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh.

In the courtroom, lawyers say, Downs is a tough opponent — intelligent, commanding, well-prepared and adept at tailoring her approach to the situation. “If the situation requires her to be firm and serious, then that’s how she’ll be,” says Anne Conway, an Orlando federal judge and longtime friend. Outside, Downs is known for a bawdy sense of humor and salty language.

“I like to think I’m a plain speaker,” she says. “If emphasis is needed, so be it. I hope I don’t shock or offend people, unless they deserve it.”

Downs’ friendship with Dyer has now extended beyond law school to the benefit of both.

In 2005, Dyer, then mayor of Orlando, was indicted on a felony charge of paying someone to collect absentee ballots during his recent election campaign. As he prepared to turn himself in, he felt he couldn’t go home because reporters had camped out on his lawn. Downs’ house became a refuge for him and his family.
“I had to explain to my children what was going on and that everything was going to be all right,” he says. “My kids know Mayanne as well as they know my blood relatives, so it was a comforting place for them to be.”

Downs was part of a team of lawyers who helped persuade prosecutors to drop the charges against Dyer, allowing him to return to his mayoral post a month and a half later. “I trust her implicitly,” he says.

In 2007, Dyer hired Downs as Orlando’s outside city attorney. Shortly afterward, she nearly died from an infected kidney stone that landed her in a medically induced coma for 11 days. “I had only a 25% chance of survival,” she says. Colleagues, friends and family members gave blood and comforted her children. “It just makes you think about people around you a little differently.”

As soon as she was well enough, Downs threw herself back into work. During the past decade, she helped structure and steer Dyer’s multibillion-dollar downtown venues projects, including a new home for the Orlando Magic and a reconstructed Citrus Bowl, now called Camping World Stadium.

In addition to her law-firm work, she advises Dyer and city commissioners on legal matters and oversees Orlando’s 25-member legal department. The city has a $200,000 annual contract for her services, though the amount it pays varies based on how much time she puts in.

Downs notes that she only provides legal advice and does not award contracts or make zoning changes. She dismisses any suggestions about potential conflicts of interest arising from the fact that some of her colleagues at GrayRobinson lobby the city on behalf of clients. “I can bet everything I own that nobody is going to influence me when I give advice to my mayor or my council,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. Many city attorneys in Florida are also members of law firms, she points out.

Tags: Trendsetters, Government/Politics & Law

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